Only Philip Roth could have written "I Married a Communist"; the man's fingerprints are everywhere. You may think of Roth as a novelist of great comic extravagance, his satirical imagination controlled by a realist's sense of detail. Or you may scramble for the exit at the thought of one more book revisiting his core obsessions, namely: 1) the libido and its discontents; and 2) anti-Semitism, particularly its most convoluted form, Jewish self-hatred. These form two sides of a coin that has become a prop for Roth's narrative tricks, in which mirrors have become crucial to the magic act. Even Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, writes novels in which he creates alter egos. No American writer has put himself in greater danger of disappearing up his own keister.
With his most recent work, though, Roth has been climbing back out. As in "American Pastoral" (1997), Nathan Zuckerman's attention returns to radical politics, and the new book takes place between the fateful election season of 1948, during the last gasp of Communist influence in American political life, and the era of McCarthyism. Chronicling that important transition is part of Nathan's ongoing inventory of his own psyche, but it also anchors the book in public history.
As a teenager longing to write radio plays, Nathan is thrilled to discover that his high school English teacher's brother is Iron Rinn, star of a popular serial about the struggles of the common folk. For a time, Nathan and the actor (born Ira Ringold) become close friends. The novel unfolds as Ira's brother Murray fills in the gaps of Nathan's recollection, decades later. Nathan found in Iron Rinn a surrogate father: more serious and less politically compromising than his biological parent. Only with the passing of time can Nathan grasp the complexities of his hero's marriage to Eve Frame, a legendary silent-screen actress.
As intense as the anger that fuels his political seriousness is Ira's conviction that, should push come to shove, he could return to the masses. Bourgeois life has not made him yield his ideals, at least on anything important. And push does come to shove. Not only is he blacklisted, but when his marriage falls apart, Eve rushes into print with the exposi that gives the novel its title.
This novel's intricate development makes it considerably more engaging than a bald plot-synopsis might suggest. With luck, a reader might even forget that it is a reply to Roth's ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, whose tell-all memoir might as well have been titled "I Married a Clinically Depressed Narcissist." As Ira's brother muses, "Nothing so big in people and nothing so small, nothing so audaciously creative in even the most ordinary as the working of revenge."
Beyond the glint of the knife in its passages of psychological dissection, the novel does a fine job conveying the feel of late 1940s-style American communism, at least in its pop-culture manifestations. The effort to infuse the language of the common people with epic grandeur, the populist sentimentality, the weird combination of Norman Rockwell and Stalin's "Problems of Leninism" -- the whole corny sensibility is rendered here in both its most appealing and its most self-deluded forms.
The picture of McCarthyism is less ambivalent. "When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country?" asks Murray. As Roth licks the wounds to his ego, the novel invokes the birth of media as cultural terrorism. It was an era in which the public discovered "An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing." If not appealing, hard to avoid. Now more than ever.